Tom Lehrer’s Mathematically and Scientifically Inclined Singing and Songwriting, Animated

I went through child­hood lis­ten­ing to Tom Lehrer’s “New Math”. The 1965 song, per­formed in part like stan­dard spo­ken-word com­e­dy, made me laugh every time. “In the new approach,” the satirist says of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary math­e­mat­ics he pur­ports to teach us, “the impor­tant thing is to under­stand what you’re doing rather than to get the right answer.” Work­ing aloud through a sub­trac­tion prob­lem at the piano, Lehrer sings the oper­a­tions: “And so you’ve got thir­teen tens and you take away sev­en and that leaves five. Well, six, actu­al­ly, but the idea’s the impor­tant thing.” This struck me at the time as noth­ing more than an amus­ing­ly goofy numer­ic riff, and per­haps one with harsh impli­ca­tions for the flaky edu­ca­tion­al fads of the nineties my peers and I then endured. Only years lat­er did I find out that Cold War Amer­i­ca of the ear­ly six­ties actu­al­ly went through a New Math phase, shak­en hard enough by Sput­nik to des­per­ate­ly foist abstract, set the­o­ry-dri­ven math text­books upon its ele­men­tary school­ers.

Lehrer, who turned 85 on Tues­day, knows the sub­ject well: he holds degrees in math­e­mat­ics from Har­vard, has co-authored such papers as “Ran­dom walks with restrain­ing bar­ri­er as applied to the biased bina­ry counter” and “The dis­tri­b­u­tion of the num­ber of local­ly max­i­mal ele­ments in a ran­dom sam­ple”, and, after retir­ing from music in the ear­ly sev­en­ties, taught math class­es at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San­ta Cruz. Leg­end has it that he would incor­po­rate rel­e­vant songs from his cat­a­log into lec­tures. But he nev­er sang only about math­e­mat­ics; he also sang about physics, as you can see in the ani­mat­ed ver­sion of his 1959 song “The Ele­ments” above, a trib­ute simul­ta­ne­ous­ly to the peri­od­ic table and The Pirates of Pen­zance. Nobody can deny the impor­tance of learn­ing how to sub­tract or how to tell one ele­ment from anoth­er, but we’d do well to keep Lehrer’s sharp human insights, present implic­it­ly in all his music and explic­it­ly in some of it, in mind. So put one of his records on the next time you have a birth­day of your own, tak­ing a brac­ing shot of his wit before you con­tin­ue, as he put it in “Bright Col­lege Days”, “slid­ing down the razor blade of life.”

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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